Three Faces is the fourth movie that Panahi has directed under a ban on making films from the Iranian government. It is the story of a girl, Marzieh Rezaei, who fakes her own suicide in an attempt to reach out to famous Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari. Jafar Panahi plays himself, and in the movie is the recipient of a self-taped video of Rezaei supposedly taking her own life. Together, Panahi and Jafari seek out this young girl in an attempt to figure out whether she really has committed suicide. This takes them to her village, where her family has not seen her for three days, although the town is largely unconcerned with Rezaei’s well-being.
In addition to exploring the value of art and the artist, the relation between realist film and reality, and the place of women in Iran’s society, the film also serves as a sort of farewell to Panahi’s friend and colleague, the late Abbas Kiarostami. Throughout the film, there are many nods to Kiarostami’s work, in particular several explicit nods to Through The Olive Trees (1994), on which Panahi served as assistant director to Kiarostami. The premise of Three Faces serves as a reversal of Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), in which a man is put on trial for impersonating director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and tricking a family. Three Faces turns this premise on its head: instead of tricking a family into believing they have captured the attention of a celebrated director, Rezaei tricks famous filmmakers into investigating her suicide, to aid her in attending an acting conservatory in Tehran.
Visually, Three Faces mimics Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy, with rural Iran colouring the screen with warm beiges and the rich greens of the forested areas. The setting is also shot through the inside of a car for a large portion of the movie, a favourite location of Kiarostami’s for staging conversations. Three Faces is able to be more visually adventurous than that which it references. The possibilities that are offered by the digital cameras used in this film allow for sequences like the stunning opening shot – in the dead of night, Jafari watches Rezaei’s video in the passenger seat of a car. In one shot spanning close to ten minutes, Jafari discusses the authenticity of the video with Panahi in the driver’s’ seat. The camera pans around 360 degrees over the course of the scene, never leaving Jafari, even as she leaves the car to get some air and walks around outside. This restrained yet immaculately choreographed opening scene introduces the viewer to the main themes of the movie and stylistically readies them for the often surprisingly hilarious story to follow.
The humour of Three Faces propels the film along, buoying what could be an emotionally exhausting story about a girl’s potential suicide. Importantly, the humour does not trivialize or diminish the issues the film tackles, and actually serves to elevate and propel the dialogue and many themes. Interactions with the locals of Rezaei’s village do not come across as demeaning, and the film does not present them as simpletons disconnected from the city life in Tehran. Rather, the film uses its comedic sensibilities to shed light on intersecting constructs that shape its characters: the exaggerated masculinity of some characters leading to screwball comedy dialogue; and the locals’ opinion of the arts as trivial is juxtaposed comically with their treating Jafari and Panahi as celebrated guests due to their status as celebrity artists.
Three Faces is a remarkable film, and another essential entry into Panahi’s filmography. Memorable characters, an intriguing plot, and an engaging relationship between reality and the film make this one of the highlights from this year’s FIN: AIFF. The final shot of the film, stilly watching Jafari and Rezaei cross a criss-crossing road for an extended period of time, mirrors the ending shot of Through The Olive Trees, in which the two leads cross rural Iran’s landscape in a still far shot for an extended period of time. This end to the film is an emotional farewell for the characters as they leave the village, and from Panahi to Kiarostami, who passed away in late 2017.